Days passed with Einarr the restless guest of Armad and the Lady Hridi. The longer he spent under their roof, however, the more certain he became that something was amiss.
The boy acted like any other ten year old, save that he still grieved for his family. Einarr had some idea what that was like, given the number of stepmothers he had known and learned to love before they were torn away. He let the boy mourn however he needed to, and otherwise spent what time he could as a friend.
No, the trouble was with Eifidi and the Lady Hridi. Placing the two women next to each other was like looking at one in a mirror, and he was not certain which one would be the real woman. Their appearances were similar enough that they could have been twins, were one not nursemaid to the other’s nephew, but where Eifidi was kind and attentive and all the things a proper mother should be, Lady Hridi was cold, almost cruel, calculation, her ambition plain for all to see. And yet, she was Regent, named so by the late Jarl himself.
Melja had been quite sure that it was Hridi who was the target, and yet Einarr was not convinced. The face he had seen in the vision was hers, but softer. More like Eifidi’s. He would have to watch them both, just to be sure. Somehow.
Meanwhile, though, he had preparations to lay. Chief among these was a ward, designed ages ago and taught to him by Melja, that would alert him when an artifact entered the area.
He had asked, in a break from memorizing the ward, how wards were different from runestones. The answer had been longwinded and convoluted, and even now Einarr wasn’t sure he understood. It all sounded very mystical, besides, but they had been in a hurry and so Einarr had nodded his head and moved on. It was something to do with power coming from the world around them, rather than from the practitioner.
While the Hall went about their daily tasks, then, Einarr spent the first few days walking in concentric circles about the land, inscribing layers of the alarm as he had been taught. When he reached the outer wall of the Hall itself, as he went along behind the building, he was stopped by a soft step behind him.
“Why are you here?” The Lady Hridi’s voice was cool and imperious, as he had come to expect. He did not turn around.
“I am here to stop the Muspel Shroud, as I said when I first arrived.”
“Surely you don’t expect me to believe that’s all of it?” The question was arch, frankly disbelieving.
“Whether you believe it or not, that is all that brought me here, and almost all that keeps me here. I have no interest in interfering in your Clan: my own has troubles enough.”
“I have seen you with my nephew. The boy is far too trusting for his own good: if I find you have been pouring poison in his ear about me…”
Einarr stood, dusting off his hands on his trouser legs, and turned to face her. “My Lady, there is no need to pour poison about you. You are poison, or may as well be.”
Her face began to redden and her eyes widened in outrage.
Einarr did not give her a chance to go on. “You are right, the boy is probably far too trusting for his own good. I understand from Onnir that he had older brothers expected to inherit – and, frankly, I expect he will grow out of it in good time on his own. But as it stands, were it not for the boy and my responsibility to stop the Shroud, I would wash my hands of this place. None of your brother’s loyalists can stand you. Remember that, as Armad grows into his Jarldom.”
She stood there, apparently stunned, for a long moment. Einarr started to turn back to his work, but was stopped by the sound he had least expected to hear: bubbling, girlish laughter. He turned his full attention back to Hridi to see her collapsed against the wall, her hand pressed against her side. She pushed off the wall and staggered away, still holding her side as she continued to giggle.
He stared, not entirely sure he believed what he was seeing. That was, unmistakeably, Hridi he had been speaking to, both in dress and mannerism. He had half expected to be thrown out of the Hall for that, although it needed to be said. Perhaps she was just too shocked, and the reprisal would come later?
Einarr shook his head and retuned to the Ward. No matter how much he might dislike the woman, he had sworn to capture or destroy the Shroud, and he did not want to find out what happened if it reached the city.
At dinner that night, a neatly folded and sealed piece of parchment was slipped under his truncheon. He slipped his knife under the resin seal and was greeted by an ornate, flowing lady’s hand.
After our exchange of the afternoon, I find myself no longer in need of your services as a bodyguard. Armad would be most distraught, however, should something happen to the nursemaid. As you are so fond of them, I think it should be no difficulty whatsoever to focus your attentions on her.
He sat staring, utterly uncomprehending, at this letter for longer than he should have. A heat began to build in his belly, not unlike the battle fury and yet quite distinct. He found he wanted nothing so much as to scream – at her, at the sky, it did not matter – but to do so in the Hall, when everyone was gathered, would be truly poor form. Quietly, calmly, Einarr rose from his spot at the table and walked very deliberately for the door.
The sky seemed unimpressed by his battle cry.
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